What is the meaning of life?
That is one of the questions most famously associated with philosophy. Yet many philosophers don’t consider it a rational question.
How do you define meaning? And if you can figure out the meaning of meaning, then you have to define life. To the best of my knowledge, even biologists haven’t yet come up with a single, airtight definition of life. How can a virus hope to find a purpose amidst such confusion?
Tough Road to Hoe
One could spend a lifetime trying to understand philosophy.
To put it in perspective, imagine if you just wanted to understand the works of Socrates, commonly considered the father of philosophy. Which isn’t to say he was the first philosopher; that title is popularly accorded another Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus. But Socrates towers over Thales of Miletus like Che Guevara over the cowardly American Sniper, Chris Kyles.
Socrates rivals Che Guevara as one of history’s most famous martyrs. Like many great thinkers, he was persecuted for his beliefs and was eventually forced to commit suicide, a fate he reportedly embraced with great stoicism.
Unfortunately, almost unbelievably, Socrates didn’t record his ideas. He reportedly believed that writing makes people lazy, encouraging them to not memorize things.
The good news is that one of Socrates’ students, Plato, recorded his tutor’s ideas. So studying the works of Plato is a great way to learn about the ideas of two great philosophers, Socrates and Plato.
You can start by visiting a library or bookstore and getting a copy of Republic (aka The Republic of Plato), Plato’s best known work. You might even be able to download a free copy from iBooks, Amazon or another online bookseller.
Warning: Just as Socrates disliked writing, so did Plato neglect to illustrate his philosophical works. In fact, even most modern philosophical works are characterized by their lack of illustrations. Readers have to wade through hundreds and thousands of pages of often complex ideas without crutches or learning aids.
Versions of Plato’s Republic, which is divided into ten sections or books, are typically 400-500 pages.
Most people would find it difficult to memorize 400 pages, which means they need to read it a second time to more fully understand it. And you can probably get even more out of it if you read it a third and fourth time.
If you’re a U.S. citizen, you’re probably going to read an English translation. That’s right, Plato wrote in Greek, ancient Greek, and a lot was likely lost in the translation. Philosophers put words under microscopes, giving them precise, almost mathematical meanings.
Of course, vernacular languages (e.g. ancient Greek) have their quirks, many of them long forgotten, in the case of ancient Greek. Ancient peoples also had different cultural values and a different perspective on the world they lived in. They effectively lived on an alien planet, very different than the dying planet we live on today.
In other words, a lot has been lost in the translation. And it gets still worse.
Plato lived over 2,400 years ago, and some believe the oldest extant manuscript dates to more than 1,200 years after his death, making it difficult to know exactly what Plato wrote. Just imagine writing a book today that becomes so popular it’s amazingly not forgotten 1,200 years in the future, when it’s reprinted. After another millennium, a race of people possessing cultural values and technology we can’t even imagine discover the reprint and begin reading and pondering it.
The Slow Lane
Speaking of millennia, some of the things Plato wrote about more than 2,000 years ago are still being debated. And if it takes that long for philosophers to figure out things as basic as truth and justice, then what hope is there in our fast-paced modern world? Like the starship Enterprise, technology is accelerating at a dizzying pace, leaving philosophical inquiry in the dust.
Imagine a political activist who wants to save endangered species or protect the planet from Bill Gates’ genetically modified everything. Anyone who wants to be a well-rounded activist might embrace philosophy. But if it takes fifty years to really figure things out, then our activist may be in a nursing home before she’s ready to fight the good fight.
Choose Your Belief System
While scientists rally around a single general theory of gravity and a single broad theory of evolution, philosophers may have an infinite number of choices.
One of the big divides in philosophy is theism—the belief in a supreme being or deities. Most philosophers are either theists or non-theists.
Theists can in turn be divided into Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and many other religious faiths. Non-theism includes agnosticism, ignosticism, ietsism, skepticism, pantheism, atheism (including strong and implicit atheism) and apatheism.
And if you can’t find a niche that you feel comfortable with, you can always create a new one.
One of the ironies of philosophy is the fact that people who pride themselves on their capacity for rational thought can believe in a Christian god that preaches love and justice, then smites people with the most horrible suffering imaginable, even condemning many to burn forever in Hell. The Christian god also plays favorites, exalting Christians and/or Jews above everyone else.
Christianity also brings us head first into one of philosophy’s biggest debates: Is there such a thing as free will?
Christians believe that God is an all-powerful, all-knowing being who knows what everyone is thinking. He also knows the future.
That means God presumably knows whether you’re going to Heaven or Hell, which suggests that you’ve already been reserved a spot in one or the other. So what’s the point of going to church if it has already been decided that you’re going to Hell?
In fact, philosophy is rife with paradoxes and roadblocks. The most brilliant, seemingly logical ideas are often countered by equally brilliant, logical counter-arguments. It sometimes seems like the universe is just one big Catch-22.
If you think philosophers, like scientists, are really classy people who wouldn’t think of stooping to propaganda, think again.
Science and philosophy have both been infiltrated and manipulated by an army of propagandists. Their mascot could be Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who shredded his credentials as a scientist when he began whoring for genetically modified food. Or Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”), who’s working for the Gates Foundation.
In fact, philosophical propaganda may be far bigger and older than most people realize, possibly even pre-dating science. It has been suggested that the Romans tolerated and perhaps even encouraged Christianity because they believed that the people they exploited might accept their lot if they believed they could find relief in a glorious afterlife.
In the meantime, modern philosophical propaganda has become increasingly sophisticated, and it can be as difficult to identify as a virus.
Good job, philosophers!
If you still aren’t convinced that philosophy is a lost cause, consider the fact that everything’s going to Hell.
We’ve possessed the ability to exterminate the human race for more than half century, and the number of nations possessing nuclear weapons continues to grow. Biochemical weapons could be even more dangerous.
But why worry about World War III when population growth, climate change and genetically modified food are already pushing us into a rut from which it’s increasingly hard to escape?
The Good News
Now that I’ve drug philosophy through the mud and convinced you that studying it is about as useful as racing the wind, let me explain why I love philosophy.
1. It expands the mind.
If you’re a U.S. citizen and armchair politician, you’re probably either a liberal or a conservative. And if someone asks you about your religious preferences, there’s a good chance you’ll tell them you’re a Christian or an atheist.
And you’re either pro-war or anti-war, pro-choice or anti-abortion.
No wonder people around the world think Americans are stupid; they appear to see everything in black-and-white.
If you’ve studied philosophy, you will likely see political and religious beliefs as gradients or as possibilities among a sometimes infinite number of choices.
You really can’t understand philosophy without opening your mind. Once you make the decision to open your mind, philosophy will expand it.
2. Word Definition
If you’re a newcomer to a political forum and you post a question or answer that includes words like truth, morality or justice, forum members may ask what you mean.
Such words have very precise meanings in the realm of philosophy, forcing students to do their homework and think carefully before making a statement.
Philosophy is thus a great aid for people who want to study political science, law and other disciplines that place an emphasis on language.
As the name suggests, political science is a science, allied with the social sciences. However, one can’t really understand politix (a word I coined to embrace the full spectrum of political topics) without some understanding of philosophy.
One of the primary branches of philosophy is value theory, which includes ethics. Ethics in turn includes concepts like good and evil, fairness and justice.
Such ideas make politix meaningful, even passionate. Without a sense of justice, Che Guevara might have been just another asshole politician, like Obama or Donald Trump.
4. Golden Nuggets
If you can sort through all the seemingly meaningless theory, conflicts, paradoxes and belief systems, you may discover some nuggets of truly useful information. Believe it or not, you might even discover that you couldn’t survive without philosophy.
Let me give you an analogy to describe my perspective on philosophy.
People have been practicing medicine for thousands of years. Yet today, even with our sophisticated medical technology, we still don’t have a cure for arthritis or the common cold (as far as I know). In fact, it could be argued that our health is going downhill, since we’ve effectively taken natural selection out of the picture. People may live longer lives than they did centuries ago, but they aren’t necessarily healthier.
But if I had a chance to jump into a time machine and travel back in time 100,000 years to a period when the entire planet was a pristine paradise, I probably wouldn’t turn the ignition switch unless I knew it would just be a temporary visit.
Besides being addicted to ice cream and recorded music, I’d be terrified of living in a world devoid of modern medical technology. In fact, doctors have saved my life at least three times.
Similarly, we couldn’t live together in over-populated cities and nations without relatively well developed ethics. I’m not a big fan of urbanism, but it’s a fact of life.
So does this mean we should study philosophy at least ten hours a day for the rest of our lives?
Not at all, though I do think philosophy should be considered a life skill, similar to language skills (reading and writing) and math.
I focus primarily on philosophy as it relates to politix. I also focus on what might be loosely termed practical philosophy as opposed to the concepts that only physicists can understand. I’m also a big believer in reality.
One of the ironies of philosophy is that many of the experts have amazingly limited experience in the game of life. They’ve never been a poor minority, never served in the military, never been a classroom teacher or a political activist, never climbed a mountain in the middle of a remote wilderness.
I’ve experienced all the above, except for being a poor minority.
To put it in perspective, there are may philosophical topics I can’t even discuss, because I simply lack the prerequisites (often including vocabulary) to navigate them (for now). But, at the same time, I’m constantly discovering philosophical arguments—particularly ones involving politix—on forums that I can shoot down in an instant.
This gap between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge may be evidence of a lack of understanding, but it often betrays a propagandist posing as a philosophy student.
This brings us to another paradox: The most complex philosophical ideas can sometimes be torpedoed by a person who has actually lived on a farm or worked for a corrupt corporation.